False advertising is alive and well in the high-tech age of the 21st century. For restaurants it takes the form of posting fake positive reviews regarding their food and service. This is appropriately called “astroturfing,” and it is illegal.
Research has shown that with the proliferation of social media review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, more and more people are checking out posted reviews of restaurants and retail stores on major search engines before deciding where to spend their money.
Benefits of positive reviews
The benefits of positive reviews on a restaurateur’s bottom line are being confirmed by a number of academic studies. A 2011 Harvard Business School study found a 5-9 percent increase in restaurant revenue with a one-star Yelp rating increase. A similar study done at Cornell showed an 11 percent increase in room rates after hotels received one more star on TripAdvisor.
The New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, published a press release that declared many companies have “flooded the Internet with fake consumer reviews on websites such as Yelp, Google Local, and CitySearch.” The results of his investigation were shared in an NPR article, “Fake Reviewers Get Zero Stars From New York Attorney General,” by Laura Sydell in October 2013. You can find it on www.npr.org.
Nineteen companies in New York have already been found guilty of writing fake online reviews. The Attorney General declared this practice of trying to mislead consumers deserving of stiff penalties. It can even land you in jail. In these cases, the companies had to agree to stop all astroturfing and pay a combined total of more than $350,000.
Schneiderman’s investigation involved agents going undercover to weed out the practice of astroturfing. One pretended to be a yogurt shop owner from Brooklyn when he was contacting search engine optimization (SEO) companies for help with advertising. When he expressed concern about negative reviews on various websites, the SEO companies offered a deal on posting fake positive reviews.
SEO and reputation management companies hire people, often from foreign countries like the Phillipines and Bangladesh, to post fake positive reviews for their clients. They could be paid anywhere from $1 to $10 per review. These companies often require writers to have established review site accounts to add to the credibility.
Other corporations keep the practice of astroturfing internal. US Coachways, a Staten Island bus company, offers $50 gift certificates to any customer who would write a positive review. They also instruct their employees to do the same. What seems like a simple incentive plan could boost positive review numbers artificially. Some review sites do not require people to disclose that they receive compensation for their good opinions.
While businesses that astroturf as a way to boost their reputation should be worried about the crackdown. Rating websites seem happy someone is keeping an eye on things. Popular review site Yelp states it welcomes the crackdown, while denying allegations that they offered to showcase companies’ positive feedback for a fee. This is another form of manipulating consumer confidence by toying with customer opinion. Gartner, a national research firm, believes that 10-15 percent of all online reviews will be fake by the year 2014. Only time will tell if the recent crusade against astroturfing and fabricated reviews will help reduce that number.
Online reputation monitoring for restaurants
There are a couple of takeaways restaurant marketers should keep in mind. First, while it may be tempting to juice the system buying fake reviews, it is illegal. Rather, restaurant owners are encouraged to engage in an active reputation monitoring system. By actively monitoring the most popular review sites, owners can be alerted of all reviews (both positive and negative), make appropriate responses to the negative reviews, contact the reviewer and take the conversation offline, use the occasional negative instances for training and quality control purposes.
Kyle Taylor is the founder of PatronsPlus.com, an Internet marketing services company focused on independent restaurants and retailers that brings big technology to small business. With Patrons Plus you focus on running the restaurant, supporting your customers, and planning the menu — while we take care of the marketing that fills empty seats. For more information visit www.patronsplus.com.